United Artists: 100 Years of Film


In 1919, four major players in the film industry; DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbansdk, foresaw the increasing commercialization of the business as a detriment. Together they founded their own studio which would grant actors and filmmakers creative freedom. Fittingly they named this new project United Artists. Aside from producing their own films, United Artists also served as a distributor for several independent and foreign films. Because of them mainstream audiences were allowed to see masterpieces they would not have seen otherwise. This year the legendary studio celebrates a century in the movie business, so it is fitting to take a look at some of their most influential and greatest films.

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The Thief of Baghdad: From studio co-founder Douglas Fairbanks came a silent swashbuckling classic. A thief named Ahmed falls for a princess who is in the midst of having various suitors contend for her hand. When he discovers one such prince only intends on marrying the princess only so he can take control of the city and rule with an iron fist. Seeing no other way to win her heart, Ahmed disguises himself as a prince though his ruse is discovered and he is exiled. Though with the city at the mercy of conquerors, the former thief utilizes a bit of magic to save the day.

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Gold Rush: Given how Charlie Chaplin was one of the great geniuses of cinema on both sides of the camera, having his talent with United Artists was a boost to the studio. As his Little Tramp character, Chaplin heads north to Alaska for his piece of the gold rush. Instead he finds an obnoxious roommate and freezing temperatures. Though he does meet the lovely Georgia who he falls head-over-heels for though he does have romantic competition. Chaplin himself this was his finest film and it even gave moviegoers the now famed Roll Dance gag.

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Steamboat Bill Jr.: Chaplin was not the only silent comedy great who worked with United Artists as the stone-faced funny man Buster Keaton also worked with the studio. The great boat captain “Steamboat” Bill is looking forward to seeing how much of a man college has made his son William Jr. Needless to say he is disappointed to see the young man is a small dandy who is in love with his business rival’s daughter. But when a storm hits their town, Bill Jr. is thrust into the role of hero to save his girlfriend and father with plenty of hilarious physical gags along the way. This includes the house falling gag which became an iconic part of his act.  Sadly during Steamboat Bill Jr would be Keaton’s final film with United Artists, as his business partner signed a deal to take their work to MGM. This would be the beginning of Buster Keaton losing the freedom to create his own works.

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Stagecoach: Directed by legendary filmmaker John Ford, this classic features a single stagecoach with a motley assortment of passengers making it’s way across dangerous terrain. In a turn of fate their hope seems to rest in the infamous outlaw the Ringo Kid, played by John Wayne in his screen debut. Though they all come from different backgrounds these passengers on the coach have to stick together if they are going to survive their journey across the harsh trail before them. Not only did this film launch the careers of movie legends John Ford and John Wayne but still stands as one of the landmark editions of western genre.

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Night of the Hunter: The sole directorial effort from legendary actor Charles Laughton was seen upon it’s release as a failure. Luckily as time went on this terrifying film noir has been rediscovered and is now hailed as the masterpiece it is. When he discovers his cell mate has hidden loot from a previous robbery with his children, the sinister minister Harry Powell decides to head down and ingratiate himself with the man’s family. The two young children who know the location of the money flee from the black clad sociopath, but no matter where they go he is right there behind them. With tattooed knuckles and sly charm, Harry Powell has truly earned his spot among cinema’s great villains thanks to a stunning performance by Robert Mitchum.

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Marty: Far too often in romantic films the story is centered on two young good looking people. That is exactly why Marty is held as a fan favorite to this day. Ernest Borgnine in an Oscar winning performance plays Marty, a butcher in his mid-thirties who has resigned himself to a life of bachelorhood. But his life makes an unexpected turn at the dance hall when he meets Clara who he instantly forms a connection with. Though they spend an unforgettable night growing closer, Marty’s friends diss her as a dog and his mother disapproves of some “college girl” trying to take him away. Does Marty have what it takes to pursue true love even if it alienates everyone in his life? Marty was produced for the purpose of losing money as a tax write-off because who would want to see a love story with two ordinary schlubs? Apparently the answer was plenty of people as the movie was a box office smash which stormed the Oscars and became the first American film to win the prestigious Palme d’Or.

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12 Angry Men: Together in a stuffy jury room, twelve strangers must unanimously decide the fate of a young man accused of murder. Beginning life as a TV program, Henry Fonda purchased the film rights to the project and hired the now revered Sidney Lumet to direct it. Fonda led an all-star cast which included: Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, and so many more. When Fonda’s Juror 8 is the sole Not Guilty vote during deliberation, it kicks off a storm of arguments and debates throughout a long afternoon. Clashes ensue as prejudices are exposed and notions of the truth are challenged.

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Sweet Smell of Success: A film which showcases the dark side of the media in a way that is nothing short of cool. Sleazy press agent Sidney Falco knows that for his clients to be happy they must get a mention in the column of the all-powerful JJ Hunsecker. This will not happen unless he goes along with Hunsecker’s plot to ruin his sister’s relationship with a musician. Being a man of no morals Falco goes along with it, but he finds the more he works with the columnist the more he is expected to lose his soul for the sake of power and fame. Manhattan in the 1950’s never looked better than it does in Sweet Smell of Success thanks to legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. His moody imagery combined with a smooth jazzy score make this movie an enthralling glimpse at the worst of the press.

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West Side Story: A classic musical courtesy of legendary director Robert Wise who brought the Broadway play to life with perfection. The West Side of Manhattan serves as the conflict grounds for two rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. During a dance the two gangs and their associates are forced into the same gym and it is here that Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader falls for the second-in-command of the Jets, Tony. As they fall madly in love with each other the tension between the rival gangs heats up with the couple caught in the middle. West Side Story has gone on to be renowned as one of the all-time great cinematic musicals and still brings joy to fans to this day.

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Dr. No: One of United Artists’ great contribution to the world of cinema was helping to introduce audiences to a spy named Bond…James Bond. When one of his fellow MI6 agents goes missing in Jamaica, Bond is dispatched to investigate what happened. Immediately the suave secret agent finds himself targeted by those working for reclusive mad genius Dr. No. As he works to uncover what Dr. No is up to, Bond crosses paths with inaugural Bond Girl, Honey Ryder. On a tiny budget, Dr. No became a massive hit with audiences and spawned the James Bond film franchise which still continues to this day.

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Pink Panther: The Pink Panther, is the largest diamond in the world and for Princess Dala it is her most prized possession. While on vacation in the Alps, notorious jewel thief Sir Charles AKA “the Phantom” makes plans tho steal the diamond for himself. While he tries to manipulate the princess he unexpectedly falls for her which endangers the heist much to the chagrin of his associate. All the while he is being pursued by the French detective Inspector Jacques Clouseau who bumbles his way through the investigation. Though he was intended to be a supporting character, comedy genius Peter Sellers stole the show as the incompetent Inspector Clouseau who became the star of the ensuing sequels.

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It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: A movie which proudly proclaimed it featured anyone who was ever funny this classic lived up to the grand expectations. After directing dramatic classics like Inherit the Wind and the Defiant Ones, director Stanley Kramer felt the need to take his talents to comedy. But this would be no ordinary comedy as he assembled a cast filled with the likes of: Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, and the Three Stooges, all led by frequent Kramer collaborator Spencer Tracey. A dying fugitive reveals to those with him in his final moments the location of the loot he got from a previous library. This sense them into a madcap race to find the money, all the while the detective who has pursuing the now-dead fugitive is close on the trail.

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In the Heat of the Night: Legendary actor Sidney Poitier portrays what may be his definitive character Virgil Tibbs, but they call him Mr. Tibbs. Driving through Mississippi on family matters, Tibbs is pulled over and accused of murder. Though he is naturally proven innocent it is clear that, Gillespie, the officer in charge of the murder investigation is in over his head and Tibbs is pulled into aiding him. As tension in the small southern town grows, Tibbs and Gillespie form a begrudging respect for one another as they try to solve an increasingly complex case. This gritty Southern-fried crime drama spawned two sequels and a TV show though none of them measured up to the original In the Heat of the Night.

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Midnight Cowboy: A movie which stirred plenty of controversy but became the only X-Rated movie to take home best picture, so obviously it did something right. In two of the best performances of their storied careers. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman play, strapping male prostitute Joe Buck and his sickly pimp Ratso. Together they navigate the seedier side of New York seeking out potential clients for Joe while both hoping for a better life. As Ratso’s health deteriorates he reveals his hope of moving to Florida. Throughout the movie the relationship between these two very different characters grows stronger and will no doubt leave audiences in tears.

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Fiddler on the Roof: Another classic musical from United Artists takes audiences to pre-Revolution Russia where a small community of Orthodox Christians and Jews live in peace. It is in this village that milkman Tevye and his wife Golde hope that the matchmaking Yente can find suitable husbands for their daughters. However their daughter Tzeitel does not like her parent’s idea of her marrying a wealthy older man as she is in love with the local tailor. For Tevye who is deeply devoted to tradition this is a shock. As he struggles with this changing world, the effects of the coming Russian Revolution begin to encroach on this small village.

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Rocky: Years of parody and lackluster sequels may have diminished it’s reputation, but the original Rocky was a gritty and emotional character study of an underdog. In a star making performance Sylvester Stallone portrays Rocky Balboa a bottom-barrel boxer trying to impress his crush Adrian. Seemingly out of nowhere the heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed comes to Philadelphia and offers Rocky a shot at the title. Though this is meant as a gimmick, the downtrodden fighter knows this is a once in a lifetime chance and pours his heart and soul into training. It all comes down to one climactic fight, where even if Rocky fights for the title as well as personal victory.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers: One of the rare remakes which equals and arguably surpasses the original film. When strange alien plants begin to appear in San Francisco two employees of the health department take notice. It seems that the arrival of these plants coincide with people beginning to act strangely emotionless. Though they try to find a rational explanation to what is happening, it is clear that something otherworldly is responsible. It is against this paranoia-filled backdrop they must uncover who they can trust and how they can stop the alien threat before it expands.

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Raging Bull: One of the best works from director Martin Scorsese and frequent collaborator Robert DeNiro dramatizes the life of famed boxer Jake LaMotta. After winning a breakthrough fight LaMotta is on the map of the mob who runs the boxing world. As his career begins to pick-up the fighter’s personal life goes deeper into chaos as he jealously tries to control his young wife. Through tribulations and even a suspension, Jake eventually gets run a run with the middleweight championship. Like with most great boxing films, the focus is not on the sport but rather on the athlete and his controversial life. Though the level of violence and mature subject matter made moviegoers timid about the film at first, Raging Bull has gone on to be recognized as a masterpiece.

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Rain Man: Upon the death of his estranged father, self absorbed hustler Charlie Babbitt is hoping for a piece of the wealth left behind, only to find it has all gone to his autistic savant brother Raymond. Hoping to somehow get his a share of the money, Charlie takes Raymond from the hospital he resides in and heads west with him. Of course along the way his narcissistic nature gets the two in trouble, especially after a memorable trip to Las Vegas. However Charlie and Raymond grow closer during this journey and they forge the relationship which had eluded the pair all these years.